by Mariella Frostrup, The Telegraph, November 22, 2017
Britain needs friends right now, and as we hustle to attract big business and plentiful tourist activity, our flagship airline will either offer an alluring beacon or confirmation of the status quo.
Look at Emirates and Etihad, between them responsible for inspiring millions of travellers to visit – or at least stop over at – desert outposts that have in turn been transformed into glittering travel hubs. Last week, Abu Dhabi staked its claim as a cultural destination with the opening of its Louvre museum; in the case of Dubai, a fantasy world dreamt up and carved out of a strip of sand and rock now lures high-end shoppers, fly-and-flop tourists and thrill-seekers.
Investment in these two Emirati carriers – which almost alone in their field have allowed “glamour” and “affordable air travel” to be found in the same sentence – has paid off, especially when you consider the rise of those glittering hotels that make Las Vegas look so last century.
Back in 1989, Hugh Hudson’s iconic commercial for British Airways extolled the virtues of “the world’s favourite airline” while Malcolm McLaren’s adaptation of Delibes’ “Flower Duet” transported television viewers to giddy travel heights. It now looks like a museum piece because it harks back to a day when British travellers chose their national airline not just because it had our flag on its tail fin (the brief period when it didn’t marked by Mrs Thatcher’s famously scathing handkerchief), but because it was a privilege to fly BA.
In my early 20s I was a PR at a record company, and a precocious transatlantic traveller. I’d have done anything to dodge the misery of the US carriers, with their grumpy stewardesses and dismal catering. While US carriers glowered, griped and relied on their route maps to draw passengers, British Airways was civilisation personified: warm welcomes, kind smiles and food that you’d willingly put in your mouth. What a pleasure it was, on the rare occasions that I was permitted the luxury of a seat on the UK’s premier airline, to bask in the unadulterated luxury that awaited even the lowliest of economy passengers.
It’s a far cry from the airline that bears the same name today, as I was reminded on a recent journey to Jamaica. The entertainment system was familiar from the Eighties and the food was inedible. The announcement just before we arrived in Kingston that they’d neglected to load landing cards only compounded the misery, creating mayhem at passport control. When I tweeted my dissatisfaction, BA replied that they were “in the process of upgrading the planes”.
Of course, the world of aviation has changed utterly since that 1989 advert: the emergence of low-cost airlines such as Ryanair saw to that. And – unless we happen to be shareholders – we Brits don’t actually own British Airways, just as we don’t own Marks & Spencer (which now supplies the sandwiches on BA’s short-haul routes). A business owned by IAG, a holding company based in Madrid, will inevitably make its own choices.
But in the bigger picture, of a tiny island with huge ambitions which is about to loosen economic ties with its nearest neighbours in favour of a brave new world of international trade deals, it would be helpful if the airline that carries our name could up its game.
Happily, last week Alex Cruz, BA’s chief executive, announced a £4.5 billion investment to bring back BA’s “glory days”, to make it “the airline of choice for everyone”. Those fresh new aircraft that BA promised me upon my return from Jamaica are part of that investment, along with Wi-Fi, better meals and better customer service. A new business-class product has been unveiled as well, which should please all the global business executives and government trade departments that we’ll soon be rushing to court.
Great: we need to hark back to the days when BA planes drew gasps of admiration from our French neighbours, as hilariously depicted in one of the “Fly The Flag” commercials from the Eighties, rather than offering competition to Ryanair. If you want to sell Britain abroad it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a successful flapship airline is an invaluable asset.